Saturday, August 19, 2006


There I was at the Mount Baker Ski Area, midway through my first intro snowboarding lesson, a frustrated 35-year-old sitting in the snow with a cold wet butt. Defeated. Discouraged. Depressed. It just wasn’t coming to me.

My lesson, so far, had consisted of two parts. One, me standing on my board for maybe three seconds only to catch an edge and be slammed to the ground with roughly the same force as Wile E. Coyote getting run over by a Mack truck. Two, me sitting on the cold wet snow waiting my turn to stand on my board for maybe three seconds only to catch an edge and be slammed to the ground with roughly the same force as Wile E. Coyote getting run over by a Mack truck.

It was during the sitting part that I came to a disturbing realization: I’m destined to live out my days as one who has never mastered the art of sliding downhill on snow. Raised in New Jersey, I hadn’t grown up a downhiller and, given my unintentionally hilarious past attempts at learning to ski, it didn’t look like I would ever become one.

Yes folks, that was me, several winters ago—a frozen-butted loser sprawled in the snow.

But fast-forward about 18 months from that intro lesson and there I am once again sitting in the snow, but this time I’m at the summit of 12,276-foot Mount Adams. And in moment, I’ll kick off on an otherworldly, righteous-as-heck, 6,000-vertical-foot cruise down the south side of Washington’s second-highest mountain. This, just a couple months after snowboarding down the south side of Mount St. Helens.

How did I turn it around? I put my best foot forward, that’s how.

Back to that first lesson. While being fitted for a snowboard and boots at the rental shop, I was asked whether I was regular (left foot forward)—like most riders—or goofy foot (right foot forward). I’d never skateboarded much and had nothing to compare snowboarding’s sideways stance with except for a batting stance in baseball, of which I’d played tons. Though I throw righty, I bat lefty, with my right foot forward toward the pitcher so it made sense to me that I’d snowboard the same way—right foot forward. That meant I was goofy foot; I loved the way that sounded.

Grabbing my rental board and heading out to the snow, I was psyched. I imagined how different my life was about to become. I was now a snowboarder. (A goofy-foot one at that!) I felt like a rebel. Like I should get a few tats, start cranking Green Day and The Offspring out of my Camry, and wearing a wool toque pulled down low over my ears, even indoors when I’m toasty warm.

Then came my lesson and my breath-taking ineptitude, not to mention the day-after pains, bruises and concussion-bomb headache. I hurt in such weird and unrelated places—forearms, neck, heels, butt, and abdominal muscles—that I woke up thinking I must be coming down with polio. I was OK, though, as long as I didn’t sit, stand or lay down.

A month later, I tried another lesson, with the same results. Only this time, I felt really defeated, really discouraged, and really depressed. So I hung it up. It was not meant to be. But that was OK. At least I wouldn’t have to wear a toque all the time, which was a relief because wool makes my head itch.

Still … it stuck in my craw that I’d go to my grave a non-downhiller. Especially when I’d see some tattooed, Green Day-cranking slacker effortlessly carve a graceful line of swooshing arcs down a mountainside. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to jump or flip or spin or reach down and grab my board when I’m in mid-air as if I just spotted a nickel on the deck of my board and reached down to pick it up. I just wanted that sensation of floating down the mountain on a Magic Carpet.

So … about five months after my second lesson, my wife, Jen, and I schlepped our way up to Whistler for Memorial Day weekend. No lesson. Just me and the mountain. Again I rented a board but with a twist. Maybe, I’d begun to think since my last lesson, I wasn’t goofy foot after all. Maybe, perhaps, I was just a regular guy, regular footed.

It was the Aha! moment of all Aha! moments. Right away, I could stay up without catching an edge and getting body slammed to the snow. I could stop when I wanted to, and even begin linking turns. I had control. With each run down the mountain—Jen, a skier from way back, shouting encouragement as she skied alongside—I was exponentially better than the previous one.

I linked one, then two, then four turns in a row. It was the best feeling in the world! The closest I’ll ever come to feeling like I can fly. At last, I understood the overuse of the word “freedom” in all the Warren Miller movies.

Thing is, it was Memorial Day weekend. The end of May. Except for Whistler—three hours away from my Bellingham home and not exactly the discount-house of ski areas—the season was over. It’d be six more months until I could fly down the slopes again.

No problem. I spent the summer and fall loitering in the snowboard magazine sections at bookstores, ogling gear at snowboard shops, and renting how-to videos. On our living room floor, I practiced what they preached on a cheap board I picked up at an end-of-season sale.

One video, despite being shot in the late ‘80s and featuring snowboard instructors in alarming neon pink and lime snowsuits, offered a newbie tip I used again and again the following winter.

If you want to turn left, with your lead hand (left for regular; right for goofy-foot) pretend to dribble a basketball on the left side of the board. If you want to turn right, pretend to dribble on the right side. (Again with your lead hand.) Assuming you’re in the correct snowboard stance—back straight, knees bent—as you turn to dribble, your hips and knees will guide you through the turn.

That winter, at ski areas from Crystal Mountain to Mount Baker, I was the one who could be seen flying down the hills looking like some nut who thought he was Magic Johnson leading a fast break. The following spring and summer, I dribbled my way down the south sides of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams.

These days, I generally pretend-dribble only on my first couple runs of the year while I get my snowboarding legs back. I haven’t been out yet this season, so if in the next couple weeks you see a boarder dribbling air balls, don’t be alarmed. It’s just me.

Feel free to wave and say hi. I’d wave back, but I’ll be too busy dribbling.